Southerners take their comforts seriously but not stingily, and will (to the point of evangelism) share the joy and bounty of a southern summer. When living is lazy, eating is good and the cicadas are humming louder than the air conditioner, what could be more natural and expansive than saying "Come on in, the watermelon's fine?"
Time was when the cicadas had only to outhum the soft swish of a palmetto fan or the gentle rumble of a ceiling fan. Nostalgia blends perfectly with summer sunlight, so it is easy to remember cooling off in a porch rocker and sniffing the heady, winey aroma of ripe peaches that floated on the hot breeze from the nearby orchard.
Or, the rush of fragrance that rises to greet you when you step, barefoot, into a cantaloupe patch. Nothing says summertime quite so exuberantly as a melon patch.
Being knee deep in watermelons is a wondrous thing, especially when you hop giddily from watermelon to watermelon, trying to choose the biggest and ripest. As children we learned to thump a watermelon to determine if it is ripe. If it is, it will sound dull and slightly hollow.
Thumping watermelons is a good way to impress, or possibly annoy, produce sellers. But try it. Of course, it doesn't hurt to know also that a ripe watermelon often will have a golden spot underneath where it rested on the soil and that the stem will be shriveled.
Yankees, and even some southerners, unschooled in thumping have been known to plug a watermelon to see if it is ripe. The little plug they cut in the melon eliminates the excitement of cutting a whopper in front of God and guests. If your thump was awry, and the melon is not ripe, you have to stand there and take the ribaldry.
Choosing a ripe cantaloupe is less risky. The stem will be gone, the stem end will be slightly soft, and the melon will smell wonderful. Sniff at will. Fragrance is a handy guide in choosing almost any ripe melon -- except watermelon.
As comforting as a melon patch is a peach orchard. With a gathering basket on your arm, you move from tree to tree, picking the rosy red fruit. Eating a luscious, juicy peach out of hand elevates thirst-quenching to a high art. Peach season also means jams and jellies and the house smelling deliciously of cinnamon and ginger, as well as peaches and cream, fresh peach ice cream, peach pie and cobbler -- and sessions of peeling the fruit for freezing, sharing in the effort to save some southern comforts for next winter.
And here, to share, are recipes: LIGHT WATERMELON SHERBET (Makes about 1/2 gallon)
2 cups cubed watermelon, seeded
3/4 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 quart half-and-half
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Process watermelon in a blender until smooth. Pour watermelon pure'e through strainer, reserving 1 cup juice; discard pulp.
Beat eggs at medium speed with an electric mixer until frothy. Combine sugar and salt; gradually add to eggs, beating until thick. Stir in half-and-half, vanilla, and watermelon juice.
Pour mixture into freezer can of a 1-gallon hand-turned or electric freezer. Freeze according to manufacturer's instructions. Let ripen (stand) at least 1 hour before serving. RASPBERRY-MELON CUP (6 servings)
1 1/2 cups fresh raspberries
1 cup sugar
3 cups diced watermelon, chilled
Wash raspberries, cover with sugar, and let stand in refrigerator for 1 hour. Pure'e in blender.
Pile chilled, diced watermelon into cocktail glasses. Pour raspberry pure'e over each glass of melon. TWO MELON SOUP (6 servings)
2 large ripe honeydew melons (about 3 pounds each)
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons finely grated fresh ginger
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
2 cups watermelon, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch dices
Mint sprigs for garnish
Cut melons in half, scrape out seeds. Scoop out flesh and pure'e in a food processor or blender. Strain pure'e through a fine sieve into large bowl, pushing with wooden spoon to extract as much juice as possible; there should be about 6 cups. Add wine, lemon juice, ginger, and chopped mint and stir.
Chill, covered, in refrigerator for a least 1 hour before serving. Garnish with diced watermelon and mint sprigs. ROSY WATERMELON SOUP (Number of servings depends on juiciness of watermelon)
1 medium size watermelon, ripe and juicy
1 cup sugar (or more, to taste)
Juice of 1/2 lemon
2 cups rose' wine
Mint leaves for garnish
Cut watermelon in half; cut out heart (the seedless center) and cut into cubes for garnish. (Use melon baller if you prefer.) Toss watermelon cubes with 1/4 cup sugar and freeze. Scoop remaining pulp from watermelon and press through metal colander or sieve, catching juice in a large bowl. If necessary, strain watermelon juice again. Add remaining 3/4 cup sugar, lemon juice and wine. Taste, add more sugar, if needed. Chill thoroughly (overnight is best). Serve in chilled glass cups or bowls, garnish with frozen watermelon cubes or balls and mint leaves. (A perfectly cleaned and chilled half-watermelon makes an attractive tureen.) WATERMELON PRESERVES (Makes 10 pints)
4 pounds watermelon rind
1 tablespoon pickling lime
3 quarts water
9 cups sugar
4 lemons, sliced thin
4 teaspoons whole cloves
4 sticks cinnamon
Trim dark green and pink parts from rind; cut in 1-inch cubes. Mix lime with 1 quart water; pour over and cover rind (double amount of lime and water if this is not sufficient to cover rind). Soak for 3 1/2 hours. Drain; rinse rind in 3 or more waters. Cover with fresh water and cook until tender. Drain.
To make syrup: boil sugar, 2 quarts water and lemons with the spices (tied in a cloth bag) for 5 minutes. Add rind to syrup; cook until transparent. Remove spice bag; skim off foam. Let stand overnight to plump. Stir occasionally. Pack in sterile jars and process 15 minutes in water bath. WATERMELON PICKLES (Makes 10 pints)
1 gallon watermelon rind
2 cups pickling lime
2 gallons water
5 cups sugar
3 pints white vinegar
6 tablespoons pickling spices
Trim dark green and pink parts from rind; cut in 1-inch cubes; place in crockery or glass container. Mix lime with water; pour over rind, let stand 12 hours. Stir occasionally. Drain; rinse again in 3 waters. Cook in clear water until transparent. Remove from heat; drain.
To make syrup, combine sugar, vinegar and spices which have been tied in a cloth bag; bring to a hard boil. Add drained rind; cook 5 or 10 minutes. Remove spice bag. Immediately fill hot jars with rind and syrup, and seal. CANTALOUPE COMPOTE (4 servings)
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup orange liqueur
5 cups cantaloupe balls, chilled
Mint leaves for garnish (optional)
Combine sugar and water; bring to a boil. Remove from heat, and add orange liqueur; chill. Combine cantaloupe balls and liqueur mixture; chill. Serve in sherbet glasses; garnish with mint. CHILLED CANTALOUPE SOUP (12 servings)
6 medium cantaloupes, halved
3/4 cup dry sherry
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups orange juice
Mint leaves for garnish
Scoop pulp from each cantaloupe, leaving shells 1/2 inch thick. Cut a thin slice from bottom of each shell, being careful not to cut a hole in shell.
Combine cantaloupe pulp with sherry, sugar and orange juice in the container of electric blender; process until smooth. Chill thoroughly. Serve in cantaloupe shells and garnish with mint. CANTALOUPE PICKLES (makes 8 pints)
3 quarts cantaloupe cubes (4 medium cantaloupes)
1/4 ounce pickling lime
5 pounds sugar
2 quarts white vinegar
3 tablespoons whole cloves
9 3-inch sticks cinnamon
1 lemon, thinly sliced
1 lime, thinly sliced
Cut cantaloupes into quarters and remove seeds and pare. Cut cantaloupe into 1 1/2 inch cubes. Cover with water in which 1/4 ounce of pickling lime has been dissolved. Soak overnight. Drain and cover with fresh water. Bring to the boiling point. Drain again. Cook sugar and vinegar with cloves and cinnamon (tied in a cheesecloth bag) for about 15 minutes. Remove spice bag. Cook melon in syrup until tender and transparent, about 1 hour. Add lemon and lime slices to syrup mixture. Boil 1 minute. Pack into hot sterile jars, and seal. FRESH PEACH COBBLER (6 to 8 servings)
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup self-rising flour
3/4 cup milk
1 quart peaches, peeled, pitted and sliced
Melt butter in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Mix dry ingredients, add milk, mix again and pour batter over melted butter. Spread peaches on top and bake in a 350-degree oven for 1 hour, or until brown. Very good served warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. (This cobbler can be made with fresh berries.) PEACH PICKLES (Makes about 8 quarts)
5 1/2 cups sugar
5 cups vinegar
1 cup water
5 cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons allspice
8 dozen firm cling peaches, peeled
Place all ingredients except peaches in open kettle and bring to boil. Lower heat and drop peaches (6 or so at a time) and cook for about 3 to 5 minutes (depending on the size of the peach) until tender but firm. Put peaches in hot, sterilized jars; cover with hot liquid (leaving 1/2 inch head space) and seal. One quart jar will hold 10 to 12 peaches. GINGERBREAD (6 to 8 servings)
1/2 cup melted shortening plus extra for pan
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup molasses
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup hot water
Combine shortening, sugar and molasses in a large bowl. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with hot water. Beat until smooth. Pour into greased 6-by-9-inch baking pan, and bake in a 350-degree oven for 45 minutes.
Note: Use gingerbread as base for fresh sliced peaches and whipped cream.